Opinion | ‘I just felt like something had died in all of us’: John Lewis on the death of Martin Luther King

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Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) (Photo: KK Ottesen for The Washington Post)

“I have not gone back to that spot since. It’s just been too hard, too difficult.”

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) has led an annual civil rights pilgrimage to Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala., with the Faith and Politics Institute for 20 years. And every year but one since 1965, the icon told me, he has returned to the sites where he was arrested, brutally beaten and continually bore witness to death in the pursuit of equality under the law for African Americans. But when it came to Indianapolis, where Lewis was campaigning with Bobby Kennedy on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, Lewis resisted returning. That will change on the 50th anniversary on Wednesday.

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“It was Bobby Kennedy who announced to the crowd that Dr. King had been assassinated. And it was such an unbelievable feeling, I cried,” Lewis told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” What Kennedy said that night remains revered as one of the greatest political speeches in American politics. “I just felt like something had died in all of us when we heard that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. But I said to myself, well, we still have Bobby. And a short time later, he was gone.”

Lewis met King in 1958 when the famed preacher responded to his letter for help by sending him a bus ticket to Montgomery to meet. When Lewis finally made the trip to the Alabama capital and walked into the First Baptist Church, he met both King and Ralph Abernathy, King’s best friend, fellow preacher and civil rights leader. “I saw these two young ministers standing behind a desk, and Dr. King said, ‘Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?’ And I said, ‘Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis,’ Lewis recounted. “I gave my whole name — but he still called me the ‘boy from Troy.’ ”


Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) talks with The Post’s Jonathan Capehart on the “Cape Up” podcast in Atlanta on March 29. (Photo: Carol Alderman/The Washington Post)

“Dr. King was like a big brother to me,” Lewis said. “[He] inspired me to get in trouble — what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. And I’ve been getting in trouble ever since.” Lewis went on to become a Freedom Rider, the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963 and representative of Georgia in the U.S. House in 1986. His colleagues call him the “conscience of the Congress,” an honorific he eschews.

“No, I don’t think I’m the conscience of the Congress,” he said, “but there comes a time when you cannot be quiet, and you have to speak up and speak out.” Prime examples being his 1996 floor speech against passage of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and his 2016 sit-in on the House floor to protest inaction on gun control in the wake of the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando. The mass protests against gun violence sparked by the activism of the high school students of Parkland, Fla., inspire Lewis, who draws a direct link from the youth of the civil rights movement to the March for Our Lives.

“Those kids got arrested; they went to jail by the hundreds in Birmingham, in Selma, in Albany, Georgia,” Lewis remarked. “These young people today are following in an unbelievable, rich tradition. I have so much hope. They make me so proud.”


President Obama hugs Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the original marchers, during an event marking the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 2015. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Listen to the podcast to hear Lewis talk about a range of issues. On immigration, he said failure to bring forth a comprehensive immigration reform bill “hurt me a great deal.” On dreamers, he said, “Many of these young people live in fear and that’s not right. That’s not fair. And history will not be kind to us.” Lewis said he thinks the Trump presidency “has set us back, has interrupted the flow of history.” And we talk about that iconic 2015 photograph of Lewis and then-President Barack Obama embracing in the shadow of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “Just being there with President Obama made me cry.”

In all my years watching and covering Lewis, hearing his harrowing stories from the Freedom Rides and Bloody Sunday, I’d never seen his eyes glisten with tears as they did during our conversation about the loss of King and Kennedy. “It was sort of the end of something,” Lewis said wistfully. “They were our future. Unbelievable. They gave us hope. If they had lived, maybe our country would be much better; maybe the world would be much better.”

“Cape Up” is Jonathan’s weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and anywhere else you listen to podcasts.

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